Thursday, September 3, 2009

Avant-Garde: Thanatopsis (1962, Ed Emshwiller)

Thanatopsis (1962)
USA, 5 min
Directed by: Ed Emshwiller
Particularly after the dull George Dumpson's Place (1964), Ed Emshwiller's Thanatopsis (1962) took me completely by surprise. An intense soundtrack of industrial machinery and heartbeat – a chilling construction of sound editing that predates Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) – highlights Emshwiller's exploration of a brooding man's psychosis. The director himself described the film as follows: "The confrontation of a man and his torment. Juxtaposed against his external composure are images of a woman and lights in distortion, with tension heightened by the sounds of power saws and a heartbeat." More specifically, I was left with the impression that Emshwiller was drawing the portrait of a serial killer's mind (the title itself, derived from Greek, literally means "meditation on death"). The man (Mac Emshwiller) sits alone in a dark room, rational reality fluctuating around him. A mysterious woman (Becky Arnold), gleaming in white, dances around the room, but so hideously distorted is her form that she more closely resembles a demon, twisting and writhing in apparent agony, her pain placing evil thoughts in the man's mind. Sex and violence merge into a singularly disturbing image of obsession and inner torment. The film ends with the indistinct silhouette of the man walking through a city, the distorted neon lights representing his warped and fractured view of reality – a chilling reminder that men like this are stalking our streets all the time.

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